Why did the Industrial Revolution Happen in the West?

By: Imad Alrawashdeh

When the Industrial Revolution occurred in the 19th century, it marked a turning point, not only in the global distribution of economic and developmental powers but also in the international political and military hierarchies.

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the West leaped ahead of its rivals in Asia, Africa, and the Arab world. It established itself as the dominant force in the international economy, controlling its institutions, and subsequently the flow of capital and debt. But how did the Industrial Revolution happen anyway? The question may seem obvious until one delves into the details.

The Great Divergence” a book by Kenneth Pomeranz, Professor of Political History at the University of Chicago, is considered one of the most important academic attempts to answer the question differently and interestingly.

Before Pomeranz, it should be noted, there were other researchers who took a stab at the question, providing a myriad of explanations and evidence. The common denominator among them all was their focus on what the book describes as a European centrality in understanding why the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe and not elsewhere.

The author argues in his book, contrary to many other researchers in the history of capitalism, that the belief that Europe’s rise in the 19th century to a more advanced and integrated capitalist economic system than other regions in Asia is inaccurate. Per Pomeranz, the western capitalist experience was not more advanced compared to other specific regions in Asia, including the Yangtze Valley in China, Gujarat in India, or Edo in Japan. These Asian regions, he says, were as advanced economically as England in the 18th century.

Pomeranz’s work, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern Economy, is part of the American Princeton University Press collection on the economic history of the West. The research represents a comparative study between China and Europe to examine the accuracy of the assumptions behind the reasons for the Industrial Revolution occurring in the latter rather than the former. I sat down with Kenneth Pomeranz to discuss his book. The following is an edited interview.

Imad: In your book, it seems that you are concerned with the question: why the Industrial Revolution happened in the West and didn’t happen in other civilizations, and you mentioned the Chinese civilization, the Arabs, the Indians and the Japanese. Is it true that the answer to the question is the uniqueness of the West? If not, based on your investigation, what is it? 

Kenneth: What I’d say is the West is unique, so is every other place. The question is which differences matter for a particular outcome. We can all agree that every place is different from every other place, but not every difference matters to every result and I guess what I would say in terms of the West’s economic breakthrough is there were certain things that were – I want to be careful here – particularly strong in the West, though not limited to the West. Certainly, for instance, once the process of growth gets going, some of the particularities of European science are important to keeping it going. Now that said, I don’t think that European science is actually very important to the early phases of industrialization because most of the early technical breakthroughs were possible through tinkering. 

Imad: what does that mean? Can you give us an example?

Kenneth: The steam engine. The Romans had a crude steam engine 2,000 years ago; the Chinese had something kind of like a backwards steam engine; various other places. The big breakthroughs that made the steam engine work had very little to do with science, the only real scientific insight you need is the idea that air has weight and there’s atmospheric pressure, and lots of societies had figured that out. Mostly it was a matter of skilled artisans tinkering with the metallurgy, the ability to make the main chamber strong enough so that it can take all this pressure pushing outward and not blow up. Does science matter? Yes, but probably not very much for getting it [ The Industrial Revolution] started. 

Imad: So, do you think there is a European science in that sense? 

Kenneth: We should remember that European science, so called, is composed of contributions from all over the place. If you read a lot of European history textbooks, scholars know better, but if you read the basic textbooks that you get in an ordinary school, it will say something like: in the Renaissance, the Europeans rediscovered Greek science. Maybe they’ll mention that they got a lot of the Greek texts from the Arab world. They might give the Arab world some credit for “preserving” Greek science, but the Arabs affected, not just preserved, Greek science. Over a period of centuries, they commented on it. In the process of translating it, they pondered, what does this phrase actually mean and is it true? They improved it, so that what the Europeans get back hundreds of years later is not just what the Greeks had. It’s what the Greeks had and the Arabs built on, and also to some extent, particularly in astronomy.

Imad: But is this really linked to the so-called European scientific revolution?

 Kenneth: Take astronomy, though it’s remote from industrialization, it is not remote from the Scientific Revolution. One of the fundamental breakthroughs in the Scientific Revolution is the understanding  that heaven and earth are made of the same stuff, and therefore, the physical laws that you can observe in things like planetary motion must be the same as the physical laws that you observe when you drop a cannonball from a tower and it plops to the earth. That was actually not a Greek insight. That was the insight of a bunch of Hindu astronomers who said, “No, Plato and Aristotle got this one wrong,” and understanding that heaven and earth are the same, physically speaking. 

Imad: Ok, so back to the main argument, based on that, the scientific advancements in the West weren’t the reasons that it was the West, not any other civilization, that ushered the Industrial Revolution?

Kenneth:  The point is there are some European things that are distinct, but A, they come all tangled up in the contributions of other parts of the world; B, in terms of science, they probably aren’t crucial to the early phases of industrialization, though they are to keeping it going, and C, it is unlikely I think that they would have been enough in the absence of other European advantages, and a number of those other advantages came from the extraction of resources in other parts of the world. 

Imad: Would you elaborate on this. How crucial was the European extraction of resources in other parts of the world to the industrialization of the West?

Kenneth: I spend a lot of time in the book estimating how much European forests, for instance, or just European land generally, was saved by the ability to import lots of land intensive products from the Americas, where they got the land, of course, by pushing out indigenous people and then much of the labor on it was done by Africans. To circle back to your original question, yes, there are some things about Europe that were helpful, but it is unlikely I think that they would have been enough in the absence of these other things. So, rather than asking, as I think a lot of, for instance, Indian and Chinese nationalists who used to say, “Well, if you tweak this or that thing in history, would we have gotten to the Industrial Revolution first?” With all respect to the scholars who worked in that tradition, and some of them did a very good work, I think in the end, that’s the wrong question.

Imad: Can we say it’s not a Western achievement in that sense? 

Kenneth: Certainly not exclusively a Western achievement. 

Imad: You mentioned in the book that the West was fortunate to get there based on having the opportunity to colonize other nations, A, and B, having coal reserves more than other nations. 

Kenneth: Well, not so much more, but in the right place. In a pre-industrial setting, the price of coal doubles roughly every 25 miles. You have to ship it over land, so obviously, it makes an enormous amount of difference if it happens to be sitting close to a coastline or a navigable river. England’s coal does with a handful of exceptions, China’s doesn’t. That makes a difference. 

Imad: How about liberalism? Because some people, especially in our region, probably across the developing world too, believe that there’s this correlation, probably even causation, between having liberalism, liberal democracy, and having economic progress and industrialization. 

Kenneth: Yes, that’s a much messier thing. We have to remember that it’s – if you look at the world today, there’s a rough correspondence between being wealthy and being liberal democratic, but it’s rough. On the one hand, you have places that are quite rich, but not at all democratic – think of some of the Gulf states, for instance – or that are moderately well off and have certainly made a tremendous amount of economic progress, at least in recent decades, like China that is, again, not liberal. Then you have democratic states certainly historically that have not been terribly rich. Certainly, it’s tricky to compare things trans-historically, but if one think of the United States in the early decades of independence, by the standards of its world at its time, it was reasonably prosperous. By the standards of virtually any country today, it was poor, at least if you count in terms of per capita income. Then if you look at the historic United States, well, up until 1860, it’s got slavery. For decades after that, it’s hard to call certainly the South a democracy. Yes, there’s a… 

Imad: Segregation. 

Kenneth: There’s segregation, there’s all kinds of very repressive labor systems.

Imad: But probably, it’s different in Europe. 

Kenneth: You’ve got a kind of range and a lot depends – democracy is a moving target. Prior to 1832, most of the English population has no meaningful vote. Even until 1867, an awful lot of the working-class male population has no vote and there’s a House of Lords that is hereditary, the power of which is not really broken until 1910, so was Britain liberal? In many ways, yes. Was it democratic? That’s kind of iffy.

Imad: In terms of the genesis of the Industrial Revolution or the drivers, do you think liberalism played a significant role? Because that’s a widespread impression among at least ordinary people that “well, because they’re liberal and democratic, they have free thinking they could invent, they had a Scientific Revolution, and then afterwards, they had the Industrial Revolution going.” How would you see that?

Kenneth: Yes. Certainly, some degree of tolerance for diverse opinions, certainly helps. How far does it have to go? It’s hard to say. Again, first of all, at least in my argument, the Scientific Revolution’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution, at least at first, is pretty small. Secondly, if you look at, for instance, the remarkable success of science in 19th century Germany, certainly not a democracy by any means. Liberal in some sense, right. I do think that some security for diverse ideas matters, but that can sometimes go along with – and I’m obviously not advocating this, I’m just saying that as a matter of historical fact- it sometimes went along with pretty limited toleration of, for instance, political dissent. In a different historical juncture, the scientific achievements of the Soviet Union are pretty impressive, so I certainly don’t want to dismiss the contributions of intellectual freedom. I think they are very important, but I don’t – 

Imad: How significant it was, probably that’s the question. 

Kenneth: Yes, and also, is intellectual freedom a single thing? 

Imad: What does that mean? 

Kenneth: Well, it means that the freedom to say that  “I have a new idea about how magnetism works” does not always go together with the freedom to say “I have a different idea about how the government should work.”

Imad: This duality is always there. People say it’s a democratic society out there, but when you get to your company, it’s very much totalitarian and you have some sort of a hierarchy and you can’t say much against the policies.

Kenneth: One can imagine a society that is relatively vigorous about protecting the worker from the absolute rule of the boss, but that would almost certainly have to be a society with a pretty strong state, right?

Imad: True, but in terms of colonialism, other nations – correct me if I’m wrong- did have, in one way or another, some sort of colonialist policies and they did invade other countries, conquer other lands, and exploit others’ resources, but why is it unique to the West in some sense?

Kenneth: I guess I’d say a few things. The first is that you’re absolutely right. The conquest and exploitation of other people happens all over the globe. Just as I don’t want to say that Europeans were uniquely clever. I don’t want to say they were uniquely evil either. They were certainly not the only people who had the idea of exploiting others. In some –

Kenneth: Yes, does it have unique characteristics to it? 

Kenneth: I think there were some things that were unique, and some of them again were luck. They crossed the ocean and they run into a bunch of places where the population has no resistance to European diseases. It makes conquest an awful lot easier. Not the conquest would necessarily have been impossible otherwise, but it would have been a heck of a lot more costly. 

Imad: But in terms of the degree of exploitation, is it more severe in the Western experience versus in other nations or civilizations? 

Kenneth: It probably is. These things are difficult to judge but the scale on which indigenous people die off in the Americas is just staggering. There’s a lot of controversy about the exact numbers, but death rates in the 80% to 90% range are not implausible for a lot of that world. Again, some of that’s just disease; some of it is also overworking in plantations, et cetera; some of it is superior European weapons because yes, European guns were a real advantage, so the death rates are pretty staggering. You can find a few other places in the world where there are indigenous death rates like that, but not that many, and certainly not that high a percentage on that scale. Remember, we’re talking about North America, South America, Australia. We’re talking about big chunk of the globe, so that’s one thing. Then when you think about the parts of the Americas where African chattel slavery becomes the key to the labor system. Yes, there’s been slavery of various sorts all around the globe at various times, but New World chattel slavery was really remarkable in the degree of its brutality. 

Imad:  Well, I can see the link between coal and the Industrial Revolution, but I can’t really see the link between colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. I know that they used slaves, but how did that help revolutionize industries? 

Kenneth: There were two main ways, and in the end the exploitation of all this new land and this coerced labor was enormously profitable. Those profits turn into capital which makes capital plentiful in Europe, especially England and Holland, relative to, for instance, the labor supply. If capital is plentiful, it becomes profitable to do all sorts of things that require lots and lots of capital, but save on labor, i.e. machinery industrialization. So the argument becomes, if you can imagine a world in which the Americas just weren’t there or in which it had been impossible to extract African slave labor to work in the Americas, you would have had both a lower standard of living in Europe because there would have been less sugar, less cocoa, less this, and less that, but even more important, you would not have had the same emergence of a very, very wealthy class of capitalists. But it turns out it’s an argument that’s incredibly hard to prove in part because it assumes a counterfactual. It assumes that if there had been no Americas, you would not have been able to find other equally profitable things to do back home in Europe, and that’s when some economic historians come along and say, “But that’s just not true.” Take away the Americas, and Dutch merchants would have invested in draining even more swamps to create more new land along the coast or they would have invested in more overland trade missions to India or the Middle East or whatever. 

Imad: And the second argument?

Kenneth: The ecological argument. I think you can look around and say, “Yes. Tell me where you would have found that much extra land, that much relief for your overworked land in the absence of overseas colonization.” Yes, there’s plenty of Scandinavian timber that you could have cut. Yes, you could imagine Egypt becoming a major cotton source even without colonialism. Though certainly in practice, the way Egypt becomes a major cotton source for Europe is precisely through colonialism, and the terms on which they produced that cotton for Europe are very favorable to Europe because of colonialism. It’s not like Europe was absolutely at its end and they had no more land, no more sources of land intensive products if the Americas hadn’t come along, but it’s hard I think to imagine adequate substitutes for the kind of scale of ecological relief that the Europeans get that buys them several extra decades, and in those several extra decades, fortunately for them, they also brought the steam engine economy online, which relieves your ecological problems in another way.

يستخدم هذا الموقع ملفات تعريف الارتباط لتحسين تجربتك. سنفترض أنك موافق على ذلك ، ولكن يمكنك إلغاء الاشتراك إذا كنت ترغب في ذلك. قبول قراءة المزيد

سياسة الخصوصية وملفات تعريف الارتباط